The merger last year of three United Way chapters serving mid- and Southwest Michigan into a single entity created one of the largest United Way chapters in the country and will expand local support services to more Michigan residents.
April 1 will mark the one-year anniversary of the creation of United Way of South Central Michigan, the combined entity created from the merger of the former Capital Area United Way, the United Way of Jackson County, and the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.
Chris Sargent, president and CEO of the United Way of South Central Michigan, said the merger felt natural because the three entities had already been collaborating for years.
United Way of
“We’ve worked together as colleagues for 15 years, so we had been partnering together on various best practice ideas and even looking at back office support and shared services,” Sargent said. “So this for us was a natural extension to then go one step further and merge the organizations after a year and a half of exploration with board leadership and community stakeholders.”
As a result, the United Way of South Central Michigan serves six counties and is among the top 40 United Ways in the country in terms of size and resources invested. The merger earned the United Way of South Central Michigan a 2023 MiBiz M&A Deal of the Year Award in the nonprofit category.
Board members approved the merger in January of 2022 and the change became effective the following April.
Teresa Kmetz, chief resource development and marketing officer for United Way of South Central Michigan and former CEO for the Capital Area United Way, said the three month interim period “gave us a bit of runway to start the integration and to start the team-building of three different cultures.”
Over the past 10 months, executives of the new entity have committed to ensuring equal representation across a service area that now spans Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Jackson and Kalamazoo counties. Each legacy organization initially brought forward 12 board members for a 36-member board. This number will decrease to 24 by the third year, though each legacy organization will maintain equal representation on the board.
“We wanted each of our local communities to be able to see themselves in this new organization and in this new organization’s governance,” Kmetz said. “The first year is almost concluded. We have learned a lot, the board has learned a lot — it has been a good process of coming together so that we can continue to excel together.”
The organization also has community leadership councils that help coordinate volunteers in each of the legacy communities, further ensuring that the merger avoids dropping services specific to each community.
This was a slightly new approach from previous mergers that included joining the Greater Kalamazoo United Way and the United Way of Battle Creek in 2012 to form the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. As well, Capital Area United Way and Eaton County United Way had merged in 2016.
“I think that’s one of the things we hadn’t done in any of the previous two mergers that we thought would be really important: That somebody in a volunteer group in Lansing, Jackson, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo were still making substantive investment decisions for how to best support the local community,” said Sargent, who formerly served as president and CEO of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.
This local focus doesn’t end with their board members and community leadership councils. United Way of South Central Michigan also is keeping ties to a variety of local vendors and partners with previously established relationships with the legacy organizations. For instance, the organization’s benefits administrator is located in Jackson, its attorney is in Kalamazoo, and its accounting firm is based in Lansing.
While executives are working to maintain a focus on local support, the merger also created an opportunity to bring local services to a wider range of clients. Sargent cited the organization’s Volunteer Tax Assistance program, which offers free tax services to qualifying individuals.
“Not only were they doing it in their three counties and some counties around them, we now have been able to expand that, for example, to Kalamazoo County,” Sargent said. “So now what we’re seeing is some locally scaled programs, or even regional programs, that expand across this regional footprint where the community asks us to do it.”
Sargent credits much of the merger’s success with his and Kmetz’s experience with previous United Way mergers. Additionally, the latest merger allowed them to keep the talent pool that each of the three legacy organizations had built over time.
“We didn’t do this merger to reduce capacity, we did it actually to expand and grow our capacity,” Sargent said. “So we have a very talented team that we were able to continue to retain and benefit from their ongoing leadership.”